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Why are people still flying into the UK despite Covid-19 rules?

Simon Murphy and Gwyn Topham
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Pia Josephson/Reuters</span>
Photograph: Pia Josephson/Reuters

In scenes last week labelled “incredibly worrying”, row upon row of travellers queued for border checks at Heathrow airport after flying into the country. Although face masks were visible, there appeared to be little social distancing.

But as well as concerns over the risk of “super-spreading”, the images also prompted the question: why are thousands of people still travelling into the country despite coronavirus restrictions?

What are the current restrictions?

Earlier this month, Johnson scrapped the government’s travel corridor policy, which had allowed passengers from some countries to avoid quarantining on arrival. However, travellers not arriving from high-risk countries – such as Brazil and South Africa where new variants have arisen – can still leave isolation sooner if they pay for a Covid test after five days that returns a negative result.

In a further toughening of measures, international arrivals – including UK nationals – must also present proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken up to 72 hours before departure. Carriers are required to ensure all those boarding have this, or face being fined, while non-compliant arrivals face a £500 penalty. From next week, carriers will check for passenger locator forms, used to aid test and trace efforts. Separately, Border Force officials are already making checks for negative Covid tests and passenger locator forms.

Who is exempt?

UK rules state people must not leave home or travel – including internationally – unless they have a legally permitted reason, such as work.

There is a lengthy list of jobs that qualify for varying sorts of exemption, although it has been trimmed recently. For example, although drivers of goods vehicles need to complete a passenger locator form, they do not need to present a negative Covid test or self-isolate. Whereas, domestic elite sportspeople do need to take a Covid test and complete a locator form before travel, but need not self-isolate.

The broad list of exempted jobs includes government and defence contractors, and a range of infrastructure workers. Since 18 January company directors, journalists, performers and TV production staff no longer qualify for exemptions.

However, despite these rules and exemptions, it is understood there are not any specific reason-for-travel checks by officials on arrivals.

So how many are still coming into the country?

One newspaper suggested about 10,000 a day fly into Heathrow – a figure that airport insiders suggest is overstated by several thousands. The airport, and others, are tight-lipped about publicly stating current numbers, and the Home Office and the Department for Transport were not able to provide recent figures.

What is clear is that only a fraction of normal scheduled flights into the UK are operating, with many planes understood to be carrying far fewer passengers than usual. Passenger flights are still being maintained on some routes for essential workers and possible repatriation, although holiday companies such as TUI have now grounded all flights.

Where are they coming from?

At Heathrow on Monday, the first flight to arrive was BA flight 74 from the Nigerian capital Lagos, at 4.44am – a Boeing 777 with typically 250-300 seats. Others followed from Hong Kong, Singapore, Ghana and Kenya, before a second morning wave, largely from North America and the Gulf – but only 30 services in total by 9am, when traffic had peaked. By the afternoon only a handful of international flights arrived every hour at what was once Europe’s busiest airport.

Heathrow’s numbers nonetheless far outstrip others: at London Gatwick, which is more oriented towards leisure travel, there were only six in-bound flights scheduled on Monday – two from Dublin, plus Belfast, Kyiv, Riga, and Madrid. London Stansted had only five incoming flights scheduled for Tuesday, from Ireland and eastern Europe. The airport has not confirmed figures but one insider said fewer than 300 passengers were said to have used the airport on the quieter days last week.